Crime & Justice

Beirut identifies victims, names judge to lead probe

By AFP and Al-Mashareq

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Firefighters carry the coffin of their colleague Joe Noun, who was killed in Beirut's massive blast, during his funeral at the fire station in Karantina neighbourhood near the port on August 12th. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

Ten days after the deadly Beirut explosion, rescue workers recovered the remains of firefighters killed while battling the initial blaze thought to have ignited the blast at the port, as authorities appointed a well-respected judge to lead the investigation.

Relatives of three firefighters from the same family were informed that the remains of two of them had been identified by DNA analysis.

"I do not have words to describe the fire that consumes us. Imagine getting to the point of being happy to have found the remains of two among you," said Antonella Hitti on Facebook, after learning that the remains of her brother Najib, 27, and her cousin Charbel, 22, had been identified.

"We are not organising funerals before finding Charbel Karam," the third missing firefighter from the family, relative Mayane Nassif told AFP.

The remains of seven of the 10 firefighters who responded to the initial blaze have now been found.

On Thursday, rescue workers also found the body of a young man at the wheel of his car that had been thrown into the sea by the blast.

Public anger at the negligence that allowed hazardous materials to be left in a warehouse in the heart of the capital despite repeated warnings has reignited a protest movement that had largely fizzled out in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the face of demands for his government to step down, Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on Monday.

His successor must be named by President Michel Aoun, the subject of increasing vitriol among protestors, on the basis of consultations with parliamentary blocs representing Lebanon's longstanding political parties -- the very ones that the protestors want to see gone.

Independent judge to lead investigation

Lebanese authorities named judge Fadi Sawan, known, according to judicial sources, for his independence and integrity, to lead investigations into the explosion.

But he will not himself question current and former ministers on the ammonium nitrate that was stocked at the port.

They will instead be referred to a special judicial body specialised in questioning government officials.

US envoy David Hale, who arrived in Beirut Thursday for a three-day visit, announced the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) would join the probe "at the invitation" of Lebanese authorities.

"The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators, at the invitation of the Lebanese, in order to help answer questions that I know everyone has about the circumstances that led up to this explosion," he said.

Calls had been growing in Lebanon for an international and independent investigation, an option Aoun has so far ruled out.

French and other foreign investigators had already been working at the blast site but their findings were overseen centrally by the Lebanese state's top security echelon.

Hale, who met with Aoun on Friday, has called for the formation of a government "that reflects and responds to the will of the people and genuinely commits and acts for real change".

France, whose minister of armed forces Florence Parly also met with Aoun on Friday, has echoed those calls.

Parly will later oversee the distribution of aid from the helicopter carrier Tonnerre, which docked in Beirut with food and construction materials.

Meanwhile, USAID acting administrator John Barsa said Thursday the organisation "will increase its financial support to civil society groups in Lebanon by 30% to $6.627 million".

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